NEW YORK Hot on the heels of Saturday's controversial press conference during which he called Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola a racist, Michael Jackson returned to Harlem on Tuesday (July 9) to address artist rights.
As part of the Music Industry Initiative summit, Jackson appeared at the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network to lend star power to the fight for better contracts, royalties and distribution for black artists.
But with Jackson's fight with his record label and his personal attacks on Mottola overshadowing the purpose of his alliance with Sharpton and attorney Johnnie Cochran (see "Michael Jackson Shocks Al Sharpton By Calling Tommy Mottola A Racist"), the summit came off more like a vehicle for damage control than a constructive outlet for record industry reform.
Trying to take the focus off of himself and his accusations that Sony failed to promote his last album, Invincible, Jackson addressed criticism that his alliance with Sharpton was born out of self-interest and not out of a genuine interest in the plight of black artists and civil rights. (What do you think of Jackson's claims? Take our poll.) Saying that the record industry system was corrupt, Jackson again spoke of a conspiracy that not only keeps black artists down but also co-opts their music and dance forms.
"I'm tired of the manipulation," said Jackson, who would not allow the media to tape his brief remarks. "The press has manipulated the truth. They're liars. History books are a lie. You need to know this, you must know this, that all forms of popular music, from jazz to rock to hip-hop, and dance, from the jitterbug to the Charleston, are black. But go down to the corner bookstore, and you won't see one black person on a cover. You'll see Elvis Presley. You'll see the Rolling Stones. But where are the real pioneers?"
Citing Otis Blackwell as one such pioneer deserving of larger recognition, Jackson said that there was something terribly amiss in a system that would find Blackwell dying penniless despite having penned such classics as "Don't Be Cruel," "All Shook Up" and "Great Balls of Fire." "They didn't write one book about him that I know of, and I've searched the world over," Jackson said. "And he was a prolific, phenomenal writer."
Jackson then said that as soon as he started gaining power, the system that once propped him up started working to destroy him. "Once I started breaking sales records," he began, "I broke Elvis Presley's record, I broke the Beatles' record once I started doing that, overnight, they called me a freak, a homosexual, a child molester. They said I bleached my skin. They did everything they could to turn the public against me. It's a conspiracy."
He added, "I know my race. I look in the mirror, and I know that I'm black."
Before Jackson's speech, Sharpton exhorted the 300-person audience to consider not just how much record labels spend on their artists, but also where and how. Jackson echoed Sharpton's call for discussion and action when he asked the crowd to not forget why they were assembled.
"Let's not leave this building and forget what was said," Jackson said. "Let's do something about it. ... And remember, we're all brothers and sisters, no matter what color we are."
Sharpton then called upon the crowd to break into discussion groups to address issues such as royalties and distribution. At this point, however, Jackson escorted by Sharpton and Cochran left the building. This caused a slight disturbance as those attending attempted to follow them some almost toppling a speaker stack on the trio, some even chasing his car down the block leaving the actual work of the summit for another day.